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Why & When Does Reincarnation Occur?

Why & When Does Reincarnation Occur?


Every descent of the soul into this world has a specific Divine purpose. This is the case whether it is the soul’s first descent or a subsequent reincarnation. There are many aspects of gilgul haneshamot—reincarnation of the soul—that are complex and intricate beyond the scope of this response. However, to understand the general purpose for reincarnation, we can look to the three reasons outlined by Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz, as provided by the Kabbalists, in his classic work Shnei Luchot HaBrit (Shaloh).1

1. There are some sins for which the cleansing in the spiritual realm alone does not suffice. Thus souls who have sinned and have not properly repented whilst alive, are sometimes forced to undergo a second round of life in this world as rehabilitation for sins previously committed. For the most part, rehabilitation occurs when the soul is faced with the same challenge to which it succumbed in its previous life, and overcomes it.

(This is also the reason why one should endeavor to do teshuvah (repentance) even if he knows that he has not done anything overtly wicked. After all, he may still have leftovers from a previous lifetime that need fixing. In fact, many have the custom to say, “I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me . . . in this incarnation or in another incarnation,” before their bedtime prayers every night.)

2. Reincarnation provides an opportunity for souls to perform those commandments that they were unable to do in a previous incarnation. Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Arizal) explains that the soul is comprised of 613 channels, which parallel the 248 limbs and 365 blood vessels of the human body.

These 613 channels attain eternal elevation when the soul fulfills all 613 commandments during its earthly descent. Usually a soul does not manage to fulfill all the commandments in one go, and must be repeatedly reincarnated until it has fulfilled them all.2

3. There are some souls who do not descend for their own growth or perfection. Rather, the only reason they return to this earth is to benefit others. This can be to help out an individual or the entire generation, spiritually or materially.

Now that we know why souls generally reincarnate, it should be noted that in theory a soul can reincarnate as many times as needed until it fulfills its mission. Yet this can occur only if it rectifies at least a minute portion of its past while reincarnated. However, a soul that has reincarnated three times without having rectified anything at all is not reincarnated again.3

This would imply that a soul that has reincarnated three times without rectifying its past has no other recourse for further rehabilitation and is forever doomed.4

However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that only reincarnations into human beings is limited to “three strikes and you are out.” These souls can still continue to be reincarnated, first as kosher animals, and then, in decreasing order, as non-kosher animals, plants, and even eventually as inanimate objects, as long as the need exists.5

Therefore, even those souls who have transgressed sins so great that it is said that even languishing in Gehenna does not help rehabilitate them, have a way to be rehabilitated through reincarnation, and ultimately are reunited with their source.6


Torah Shebichtav, Parshat Ki Teitzei.


See Sefer HaGilgulim, ch. 4; Shaar HaGilgulim, Hakdamah 11:16. This excludes commandments that are incumbent only upon a specific individual such as a king, since he discharges the obligation of all of Israel; see Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 29, and the footnotes of the Lubavitcher Rebbe printed in Lessons in Tanya ibid.


See Kitvei HaArizal, Shaar HaPesukim, Parshat Yitro. This is reflected in the verse (Exodus 34:7), “. . . He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation . . .,” meaning that G‑d leads them through up to four incarnations (the original one plus three reincarnations).
Additionally, it is inferred from the fact that the verse (ibid.) states, “. . .preserving lovingkindness for thousands . . .”, that in general, a soul which has rectified part of its past, only reincarnates up to two thousand times. See Shaar HaPesukim loc. cit.


See Shaar HaPesukim loc. cit.


There is, however, an important distinction between souls that reincarnate into human bodies and those that reincarnate into other creatures. When a human soul incarnates into an animal, it does so merely as an observer. That is to say that this creature is like any other creature of its kind, except that a reincarnated soul is trapped inside. The excruciating pain and sorrow the soul experiences while trapped inside the animal, forced to live and observe the life of this creature while powerless to control its behavior, serves to rehabilitate it.
Additionally, while this soul cannot really rehabilitate itself as it has no control over the action of the creature, it can sometimes be rehabilitated through the actions of others, for example, by someone reciting a blessing over it, if it is kosher.


Igrot Kodesh, vol. 1, p. 153.
Often they need the help of other souls in order to rehabilitate themselves. This is the reason why the Baal Shem Tov and the Arizal, respectively, would sometimes travel great distances in order to recite a blessing at a certain location or over a specific dish.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Discussion (48)
February 8, 2017
If we reincarnate how will we see our love ones when we get to the afterlife
January 31, 2017
How does the math of reincarnation work...considering the billions of people coming from one Adam? and multiples of animals etc.?
April 23, 2016
Shalom Anonymous NV
Now there are two of us Old Souls in youngish bodies !
Have always felt that way especialy after losing my mother when I was quite young. Seems that death of a young parent can make one feel old. The feeling never left me.
louise leon
April 14, 2016
What are the 10 lessons we must learn to complete a reincarnation cycle?
April 14, 2016
Old soul
I was told i was an Old soul in a young body and i agree i have always felt that way.. but i was also told that i was not reincarnated that i have not been reborn.. i would like to understand more on what this means because from what i have understood here it takes a process and levels in life to get there please advice
December 18, 2015
Good I read the footnotes
Now I grasp why my life has been one horrendous event after another. Yikes ! Now I just can't figure out if it was my sins alone that caused all the pain or the sins of previous generations. In any event, boy can life get complicated. interesting and a lot of pain. Thank G-d for psycho-therapy.
I've had a whole lot of it and really enjoyed the many different experiences.
December 17, 2015
If one comes back to make up for their mistakes as earthlings wha exactly does one return animal, or what?
December 16, 2015
What if one likes to be in a body as mundane or horrid the place or the situation or the body the soul was place in?. Are we not allowed to argue for H-S-em to put us in a place or in the future for his help so we can be place in a that we enjoy?
August 29, 2015
“three strikes and you are out.”
I have read many places that you are reincarnated as many times as it takes. I also think that at some point if your spirit/soul does not advance that it goes into the melting pot to be refined and reused to make new souls. Sort of like broken pieces of metal
remelted to be made into items.
Doug Cutler
June 30, 2015
Thank g-dness that we all aren't expected to fulfill the mitzvoth of kings (and queens).
The Nepalese (buddhists??) have a "circle of life" that is extremely aligned with the Judeo-Christian concept of reincarnation.
louise leon